Not so very long ago, many internet critics of christianity were pointing out that there was no archaeological evidence of settlements at Bethlehem and Nazareth in the first century. This demonstrates, they said, that these towns didn’t exist, and that therefore the Bible accounts are not historical.
But the situation is now very different. A number of new archaeological discoveries at Nazareth, and one artefact that mentions Bethlehem, provide new evidence.
Nazareth is said to be the boyhood home of Jesus, but the archaeological evidence was scant and there were no contemporary references to it – the first Jewish reference dates to the 3rd or 4th centuries. So some have claimed that it too did not exist as a village in Jesus’ time, and some sceptics have devoted books and websites to promoting this conclusion.
Much of the area where Nazareth would have stood is now covered by the modern city, and so excavation is extremely limited. Nevertheless, in the last few decades, excavations have uncovered a number of finds that have slowly increased the available evidence.
Archaeology at Nazareth
In the 1950s and 60s, B Bagatti found evidence of rock-hewn tombs and storage pits dated to the first century, and later N Feig found further tombs of similar date.
In 1962, a syagogue inscription in Caesarea mentioning Nazareth was dated to about 300 CE. Historian Paul Maier has claimed a first century date for this fragment, but I can find no support for this claim and assume it must be an error.
A number of tombs and graves dated to the first century have been found in the vicinity of Nazareth (see e.g. the reference to archaeology by B. Bagatti, N. Feig & Z. Yavor in Wikipedia).
In 1996, an ancient winepress associated with agricultural terraces was discovered about 500 m from the site of ancient Nazareth. The archaeological investigation continued for several years at what is known as the Nazareth Village Farm site on what was once a farm on a hill just outside the ancient village.
Excavations and analyses by Stephan Pfann, Ross Voss and Yehudah Rapuano over the period 1997-2007 found several structures (a winepress, several watchtowers, stone irrigation channels and agricultural terraces). Coins and pottery found at the site confirm that there was an agrarian community at Nazareth in the first century and suggests that the residents of this village made a living growing grapes, olives, and grain on terraces cut into the limestone hills. The report states:
The earliest occupation seems to have occurred in the late Hellenistic period of the first and second centuries BC. ….. A small amount of material dated to the Early Roman period of the first century BC to first century AD was found.
In December 2009, an Israel Antiquities Authority press release announced that a house in Nazareth (photo, left) had been excavated and found to contain artefacts from the “early Roman period” (first and second centuries). The archaeologists also found a pit hewn out of stone with a concealed entrance, which they believe was constructed as protection during the Jewish revolt of 67 CE.
In 2012, archaeologist Ken Dark, Associate Professor at Reading University, announced he had found remains of
an exceptionally well-preserved domestic building, probably a ‘courtyard house’ dating from about the middle of the first century. The house later went out of use, and several tombs were constructed on the site, probably late in the first century.
Against all this evidence from many different competent archaeologists, a few sceptics (principally Rene Salm) argue that the experts have got it wrong, perhaps for conspiratorial reasons. However the archaeologists say Salm simply doesn’t understand their discipline and misrepresents the facts.
The conclusions of the archaeologists
These last two discoveries were seen by the Israel Antiquities Authority and others (The Guardian, the Huffington Post, the Biblical Archaeological Review and New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado) as conclusive evidence that Nazareth did indeed exist right through the first century, and before. Based on the number of tombs found previously, many conclude that it was a small agricultural hamlet of about 50 houses, although Ken Dark suggests it may have been a little larger.
New testament scholar Bart Ehrman has written briefly about Nazareth in his book Did Jesus Exist? and on his blog. He has personally contacted archaeologist Yardena Alexandre to verify that artefacts (principally coins and pottery found in several separate excavations) did indeed come from around the time of Jesus. Based on this evidence, and the reports referred to above, Ehrman concludes:
René Salm’s claim that Nazareth did not exist in the days of Jesus is dead wrong and is rejected by every recognized authority – whether archaeologist, textual scholar, or historian; whether Jewish, Christian, agnostic, or other.
In the Bible, Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, is said to be the location of Jesus’ birth. However archaeologists have found little that could identify the town of Bethlehem in the first century, leading a few to argue that it didn’t exist as a village in Jesus’ time.
What should we expect?
The exact location and size of Bethlehem at that time is unclear, and some early traditions say that Jesus was born “near” Bethlehem, which may indicate a region rather than a town. So it may not be likely that much archaeological evidence would be found.
A small but useful discovery
In May 2012 the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that archaeologists working in the city of David area of Jerusalem had discovered a small (1.5 cm) ‘bulla’ (see photo), a piece of clay used to make an impression in wax, sealing a document so it couldn’t be altered. This small bulla apparently accompanied a delivery of goods to the king of Judah about 7 centuries BCE, and identifies that the shipment was despatched from Bethlehem.
Did Bethlehem exist at the time of Jesus?
This shows the existence of town named Bethlehem seven centuries before Jesus, the first independent corroboration of the Bible’s references to the town. This doesn’t prove it existed in Jesus’ day also, but if it was there 700 years before and 400 years afterwards, it suggests that it probably did indeed exist at the time of Jesus (see report in the Los Angeles Times).
It should be noted that some scholars believe that Jesus was not in fact born in Bethlehem as the Bible says. If this was so, the existence of Bethlehem would become a less contentious question.
It seems there is now little doubt
The evidence for Nazareth existing throughout Jesus’ lifetime is now overwhelming. It was probably established a century earlier as a small hamlet, and slowly grew larger through the years after Jesus lived there.
The evidence suggests that a settlement existed at Bethlehem long before the birth of Jesus, and long afterwards, so it is reasonable, though not certain, that Bethlehem existed at the time of Jesus.